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Cannonball Read IV: Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves by Adam Hochschild

By Jen K | Books | February 9, 2012 |

By Jen K | Books | February 9, 2012 |

I actually picked this book up because I was interested in Hochschild’s book To End All Wars, but I wanted to check out his writing style before buying a hardcover book by an author I’d never read. While I still haven’t picked up To End All Wars, another one of his books, King Leopold’s Ghost, has made it to my to read pile since I started reading this. Being an American, I of course had the same American history class in 8th grade, 11th grade, and then the AP version in 12th grade. I also majored in history (among other things) in college, so I’m definitely aware of the big picture history of how slavery ended in the United States and some of the debates and conflicts leading up to the Civil War, and finally the end of slavery. However, I knew much less about what was going on across the ocean in Britain - I vaguely knew that slavery there had ended around 20 years before the Civil War started, and that the British didn’t fight a war in the process of abolishing it. It vaguely made sense to me because it’s not like England had much use for slavery. As it turns out, that is a very simplified version of looking at it, and this book tells the history of how the British Empire came to abolish first the slave trade and finally slavery itself.

Hochschild introduces the year 1787 as watershed year for the British abolitionist movement. In Britain, abolitionists didn’t refer to people trying to end slavery; it referred to people trying to abolition the slave trade which included the journey over the middle passage that has become so famous. In the first part of the book, he describes the slave trade, and its importance to the British economy. He states that when the twelve men got together to formally begin the abolitionist movement, banning the slave trade would be comparable to starting a group that intended to get rid of cars - it was simply that big a part of the economy of the Empire and a part of live. He also introduces the men that would have such influential roles in swaying public opinion. For example, there was Granville Sharp, who was involved in a myriad of causes, and from an influential family. He played a role in a court case that would end slavery in England itself. As Hochschild explained, the ruling didn’t quite state that, but that’s what everyone thought it stated, and in a case of “perception is reality,” the court case effectively ended slavery in England - if someone brought a slave there, they weren’t slaves any longer. Another important man would be Olaudah Equiano, a former slave, who would be one of the first men to put his story to the page, thus gaining the sympathy of many. Thomas Clarkson was one of the driving forces in the movement and devoted his life to spreading the word. Additionally, the group quickly gained on member of parliament as part of its team, William Wilberforce.

While it wasn’t easy going, and the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade faced many defeats and obstacles, Hochschild demonstrates just how innovative they were. Many of the things that groups still do today to raise awareness can be traced back to this society, who either invented or perfected the methods, such as newsletters, strategic boycotts (the boycotts against sugar were much more effective than the American boycott of tea), and collections of facts. Clarkson spent a large part of his time finding witnesses that told of the conditions on slave ships, on plantations, and the effect this industry had on white men, who were sometimes kidnapped or forced into contracts as sailors on these ships (speaking of the ill effects this had on white Englishmen helped the cause because it made it hit closer to home). The abolitionists realized that it was easier to raise people’s sympathies by giving them the facts than citing religious texts. Though the slave trade wouldn’t be abolished until 1807, public interest caused parliament to have hearings on the subject only five years after the society formed.

While slavery wasn’t important in England itself, it played a huge role in the British Empire due to the actual slave trade, and the sugar plantations in places like Jamaica. The society originally focused on the abolition of the slave trade because they believed that without a constant resupply of slaves, slavery would eventually die out. While this would not be the case, the slave rebellions in Haiti (or St. Domingue) and the extreme loss of money and life that resulted from British involvement in trying to suppress these rebellions eventually led to more people being opposed to slavery. As it turns out, just because there wasn’t a civil war doesn’t mean that the British didn’t participate in wars that had to with slavery.

I really liked this book - the end of slavery in the British Empire was something I knew very little about and had a rather simplistic view of prior to reading this. Hochschild states that he purposely doesn’t get into the politics of the American abolitionist movement, but the book is still far-ranging, covering several decades and places on either side of the Atlantic. It certainly wasn’t a simple journey, and Hochschild talks about the way this story was originally written in history. Since slavery was abolished due to both members of parliament, and a group of civilians, there were two routes through which this could have been seen: the benevolent empire giving freedom to all and being a shining beacon to the rest of the world, or a group of revolutionaries that engaged the public and forced the government’s hand. For over a century, the first view won out, almost leaving people like Clarkson out of history (Clarkson was the only one of the twelve original members that survived to see slavery abolished in 1838). Fortunately, this book is a rather fitting tribute to the movement, showing how all the events came together that led to the abolition of slavery. Of course freedom didn’t solve everything: owners were given financial restitution when the government freed their slaves, and the freed men and women were left to fend for themselves with no resources. Hochschild certainly doesn’t try to glamorize the men, and later women, that were part of the different anti-slavery societies. Much like in the States, many of these people were confused as to how they felt about freed blacks and what they felt their roles should be. Some of them were paternalistic while others were oddly conservative when it came to just about every other topic, but overall they achieved something that would have seemed almost impossible when they started. I also liked that Hochschild didn’t just show the white perspective. He included Equiano, and the slave rebellions in the West Indies, preventing this from being simply a story about white people being benevolent saviors.

(Header Photo: © Al McCaffery. Details of the Anti-slavery Arch, Stroud erected in 1834 to mark the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act.)

For more of Jen K’s reviews, check out her blog, Notes From the Officer’s Club.

This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.